Last year I rediscovered an old love. A long-standing fan of Urban Fantasy and both crime and mystery novels, I fell in love with Laurell K Hamilton many, many years ago.
My love affair began with Anita Blake, continued with Meredith Gentry, and ended when I read Narcissus in Chains. For me, this book marked the end of a once-great series. I read it, and refused to read another book by Laurell K Hamilton again for a decade. To my recollection, I had at that point read three Merry Gentry books – A Kiss of Shadows, A Caress of Twilight, and Seduced by Moonlight. I adored the Anita Blake series up to NiC, and while very different, I had also loved the Merry Gentry books.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
Laurell K Hamilton is now known as a writer of erotic fantasy, but this wasn’t the case in the beginning. In the beginning, Anita Blake was an edgy, unique crime noir fantasy series that brought a much needed breath of fresh air to a stagnating genre – that of vampires. The horrors of Twilight and the slew of similar travesties that would come to emulate it had yet to be unleashed on the genre. Vampires still had bite, monsters were still monstrous, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the film) had only just crashed onto the scene the year before.
Anita Blake was an ass kicking, crime fighting, vampire slaying, raiser of the dead, and she was completely fucking awesome.
For eight blissful years and nine fabulous books, Blake held me captivated and intrigued. The books had an erotic flare to them, a slight edge that made placed them firmly in the Adult section, and that was also appreciated. Too much Fantasy at that time skirted sex completely. It was alluded to occasionally, but seldom seen, and at the time George R.R. Martin was setting about changing that forever, Laurell K Hamilton was doing the same in her own genre.
As my love affair with Laurell K Hamilton continued I was delighted by the release of a new series, Merry Gentry. Not my first encounter with Erotic Fantasy (as opposed to Fantasy that was slightly erotic at times), I enjoyed the change of pace and, lets be honest, the smut.
Meredith was always smutty.
At first there was a series of crime noir fantasy novels that featured the occasional sex scene on the one hand, and a series of erotic urban fantasy that was heavy handed where the sex was concerned but still featured a halfway decent plot on the other.
But at some point, the smut got out of control, and the line between Anita Blake and Meredith Gentry blurred. Whether it was the success of the Merry Gentry books and the now-flagging popularity of Anita Blake or simply a desire on the part of the author to write nothing but smut is unclear, but Laurell K Hamilton’s books suddenly got a lot more smutty and a lot less plotty.
Meredith weathered this far better than Anita, as she had always been a highly sex-charged character in a world where group sex and orgies were common, and politics was not only charged with magic and intrigue but, yes, you guessed it, sex.
Even so, the addition of even more sex to an already sex-packed series took its tool, and the plot in Meredith’s series – always a little on the thin side – was swallowed up in smut.
You can actually track this.
The amount of plot in the Merry Gentry books, from Seduced by Moonlight onward, is directly proportional to how frustrated Meredith is at not being allowed to give anyone a blow job (this due to the fact that the now very flimsy plot hinges on her getting pregnant, and blow jobs are a waste of, erm, baby juice).
Meanwhile, Anita’s sex quota per book was increasing at an alarming pace and, unlike readers of the Merry Gentry series, those of the Anita Blake series weren’t nearly as willing to accept it. Some liked it. Those who loved Merry’s books were delighted that Anita’s were now providing them with even more fantasy fodder for more….intimate moments.
The majority of us, however, were pissed.
Like, seriously pissed.
Anita’s plot lines had always been great. Intriguing, clever, rich, but still fun. And it’s not like there was an absence of sex or sexual tension. It was there, right from the start, simmering in the background and occasionally coming to the fore when the plot demanded/allowed it.
We liked it that way.
Transforming Anita’s sexual world into something that more closely resembled Meredith’s was, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s an opinion shared by many, and seems to have filtered through to Laurell K Hamilton herself eventually, as the most recent offerings in the series have (I’m told) twisted back around to return to a more balanced offering of fantasy, crime, and yes, erotica.
I was pleased when I heard this and decided to catch up and see what was really going on. In addition, I was conscious of the erotic elements in my own fiction writing, and was growing worried that, in some cases, the smut was getting out of hand.
I’m currently working on Death Becomes Me, the next novel in the Deathly Insanity series. Chasing Azrael was not devoid of sex, there was tension between various characters and a couple of full blown (pardon the pun) sex scenes. Death Becomes Me is….somewhat more extreme in this regard. This was not a conscious choice on my part, I didn’t decide to make it smutty, I didn’t set out to write erotic fantasy, but there is not denying that – in places – this is what I’ve written.
Now, it’s a long book. And I mean that, it’s really fucking long, currently standing at over 157K, with 22 chapters left to write.
Like I said, it’s LONG. I have no intention of leaving it that long, it will be trimmed considerably in editing, but there is no way this book is going to come in at under 160K when finished.
There’s just too much in it.
So in the midst of all that complex plotting, all those interesting characters, there’s room for more than the average amount of smut. Unfortunately there’s no formula to calculate the percentage of sex scenes a book needs to have before it is counted as erotica, and not simply fantasy with an erotic twist. So my reasons for re-reading Laurell K Hamilton’s books were two-fold: I wanted to see if she really had returned to the style I loved so much, and I wanted to figure out exactly where she went wrong.
How much smut is too much?
My conclusion is that it depends very much on the plot and the characters, in particular the main character. This is especially true when, like me, you’re writing in first person.
The main character of Death Becomes Me is a feisty little firebrand named Evelyn. She is an extremely sexual, sensual, and sexy character. There is just not getting away from this. She relates to people in terms of sex. She can’t help it. There are reasons for this, which are revealed as the book progresses, but it’s clear from the start that her primary method of relating to people and dealing with almost every situation, is sex.
The result of this is that, for at least the first quarter of the book, there is a lot of sex. Not because I wanted it to be smutty. Not because I was trying to titillate the reader. Simply because that’s who Evelyn is. As the book progresses, her character develops, the story becomes increasingly complicated, and the ratio of sex scenes to non-sex scenes changes drastically.
The more I re-read Laurell K Hamilton’s books, the more I fell in love with her and her worlds all over again. And yet, I still hit Narcissus in Chains and Seduced by Moonlight and felt that it all went down hill. I ploughed on with Meredith’s books, just as Meredith’s bodyguards ploughed on with her, and I finally realised why the excessive focus on the erotic elements bothered me.
Laurell K Hamilton is a skilled writer. Her characters aren’t wooden (aside from those aspects of the male characters that are, in this context, supposed to be). They have depth, dimensions, even in a world that is written primarily as an erotic escape. They develop, they change, the dynamics between them shift and alter. This is as it should be, and is one of the reasons I love these books so much. The problem is that there comes a point where Meredith is clearly no longer in a place that makes her want to hump everything in sight. Yes, faerie culture is a very sexual one, but she falls in love. And once she falls in love, her attitude towards sex should change considerably. Creating faerie culture in this way was an extremely clever addition to the world building on Hamilton’s part. Without it, there would be no reason for Meredith or the rest of the cast to behave as they do and, even once the plot literally demands they have sex continually, it would be very awkward.
By creating a world in which sex is a language more than a physical act, a means of communicating, comforting, reassuring, and defining relationships and political alliances, Hamilton bought herself a lot of leeway in this regard. It isn’t out of character for her characters to be at it like rabbits. It isn’t inexplicable. It is, in fact, completely understandable. More than this, she didn’t create Meredith to be the kind of character everyone wants to bed simply because she’s so amazing and wonderful. On the contrary, Meredith is part human and, as such, far less appealing to most fae than a full-blooded Sidhe. The reason everyone is falling over themselves to bed Meredith is, quite simply, that the majority of them have been celibate for hundreds of years and they are gagging for it.
All these elements make the world, the characters, and the insane amount of sex that takes place, reasonably believable for the first two books and for much of book three. But there it falls down, because the characters are changing. Meredith is changing. More than that, Meredith is placed in a position where she is in love with one of her lovers, but cannot simply chose to be with him and give up the rest without forfeiting her entire kingdom and claim to the throne. This is important, because part of the change in Meredith is that she has grown to understand she truly wishes to claim the throne, and exact positive change in the world of the Sidhe. At this point, the books should become a question of her torn heart – does she chose the man she loves, or does she chose her kingdom and her people.
She can’t have both.
Instead these concerns are barely given lip service, and the group sex and orgies continue apace without Meredith feeling much in the way of disgust at having to continually sleep with people other than the man she loves. The only thing that saves the books here is the nature of the fae and their extremely sexualised behaviour and customs, which goes some way towards explaining this.
Yet Meredith is part human, and regularly acts in a very human way, despite her fae blood. The reader expects more from her than blithely continuing to fuck every man who seeks her protection. Every man seeking sexual release. Every man she must bed in order to maintain various alliances. Every man (and occasional woman) that happen along simply because of circumstance.
It just gets ridiculous.
Not only has the plot vanished by this point, what little plot remains is not reflected in the actions of the characters, and neither is the character development. Hamilton writes wonderful characters, and then has them contradict their own natures simply so they can keep having page after page after endless page of sex.
I am not a huge fan of erotica. I like sex. I like books that contain sex. I tend to get pissed off by books that are prudish and pretend sex doesn’t happen – Twilight and its ilk in particular annoy me with the totally unrealistic view of life as a teenager.
Teenagers are horny.
Deal with it.
But I like books to have depth. I like them to have plots. I like them to have strong, dynamic characters whose actions reflect their personalities and vice versa.
So while I’m a huge fan of authors like Laurell K Hamilton (in the early Anita Blake years) and Kelley Armstrong, who spin wonderful tales of Urban Fantasy populated by believable characters and intriguing plots, I get exceedingly pissed off by any book that allows the need to insert a sex scene every X number of pages to supersede the needs of the plot and nature of the characters.
As such my re-reading of Laurell K Hamilton, and consideration of how much erotica is too much erotica, has led me to the following list of questions to bear in mind whenever I’m writing a smutty scene:
- Are all characters involved acting and reacting in a manner that is true to their nature, and CURRENT thoughts/feelings/beliefs?
- Is the inclusion of the scene furthering the plot, changing the dynamic of a relationship, or building character development?
- Does the scene have a purpose beyond being fun to read?
If the answer to all of these questions is no, lose the scene completely.
I mean it.
Cut it, bin it, delete it, burn it. Just get rid of it.
It’s not doing you or your book any good.
If the answer to one or two of these questions is no, but the remaining question(s) is a definite yes, see what you can do about shoring the scene up a little – try to make the answer to at least two of these questions a resounding YES.
If you are writing erotica, you have a lot more wiggle room (pun intended). Readers care more about the escapism and fantasy than they do about pesky things like plot, characterisation, world building and consistency. BUT learn a thing or two from Laurell K Hamilton:
- Don’t assume your readers will stick with you if you abandon you plot and/or your characters completely in favour of an constant smut fest.
- Hone your world so that there is as much as possible in place to make the excessive amount of sex believable. Hamilton’s meticulous construction of Sidhe culture is a fine example of this. World building, far more than plot, will enable you to get away with constant sex scenes – the ‘plot’ supporting Meredith’s sexual exploits is extremely thin and often makes absolutely no sense because it gets bent and twisted around to accommodate the next sex scene. The nature of the Sidhe, however, is extremely well executed and goes a very long way towards explaining why Meredith can’t keep her knickers on.
I am extremely glad I returned to Laurell K Hamilton’s worlds, and hope to eventually make it through the endless smut to the most recent books which, I’m assured, are far more in keeping with their original formulas.
Love Laurell K Hamilton? Hate the turn in the Anita Blake books as much as I do? Let me know! Leave a comment below or pop over the Facebook page and join the conversation!